There are two major aspects of defense: the offense of defense, and the defense of defense. The latter should be of major concern to both Oilers fans and management.
The projected first pairing is Lubomir Visnovsky and Sheldon Souray. Visnovsky had a bit of a down year, finishing with 41 points and a dreadful minus-18. Souray wasn’t nearly as effective as his fat contract last year would suggest, playing in only 26 games because of shoulder issues.
From the outside, this looks like one of the better top pairings in the Western Conference. You have a guy who scored 67 points not even three years ago in Visnovsky and you have another guy with 60-plus points not even two years ago in Souray.
The trouble is that both Souray and Visnovsky are average, at best, in their own end. Souray can be mean and nasty and throw an occasional hit here or there; but up against the likes of Jarome Iginla and Joe Thornton every night, he doesn’t look the least bit like a defenseman, but rather more like a defenseless man.
He may have good, if not great, offensive instincts, but he is well below average in his own end. More than 60 points is great, but if Souray is your top defenseman it's definitely not a risk worth taking.
Visnovsky is the other half of the projected top pairing, and he is better than Souray in his own end, but is still quite average by the league’s standards. Iginla won’t be helping Visnovsky make the SportsCenter Top Ten Plays of the Night by any means, because Visnovsky’s defensive instincts are far better than Souray’s.
It’s not very often you see Visnovsky get caught flat-footed, and his skating ability is much better than Souray’s as well. The trouble is that Visnovsky is very undersized for a defenseman in today’s game. Because of his lack of size, he is usually very shy about doing the dirty work a top pairing defenseman is supposed to do; that is, going into the corners, and getting physical. However, he is better than Souray.
Pairing two looks to be Steve Staios and Tom Gilbert. Question marks surround this pairing as well.
Steady Steve, as we have come to know him here in Oil Country, had another solid season with the copper and blue. He tallied his usual offensive numbers and continued to play the old-fashioned, in-your-face brand of hockey we have come to expect of him over the years.
This season, Staios will be mean and nasty and will continue to do the dirty work Visnovsky tries to avoid, but he will contribute much less on the offensive end. He plays a mean style of hockey, and strong defense is his forte. He won’t end up with jaw-dropping offensive totals, but will contribute here and there; and his leadership makes him invaluable to this young team on the rise.
The real questions are with Gilbert. After four years of seasoning in the NCAA, he looked quite sharp in his rookie season, tallying an Oiler-record 33 points as a rookie defenseman. He looked quite sharp in the defensive end as well, playing in all situations even as games got more meaningful toward the end of the year.
The trouble is how to evaluate how much of his success was due to a depleted blue line and how much was of his own. Obviously he has the potential to be a top-four defenseman for a few years, but much of his ice time this season will go to Souray and newcomer Visnovsky. The main reason is that, barring an injury related setback, those two are almost guaranteed more points than him.
Also, Gilbert’s defensive play may be better than Souray’s, but his offensive ability is not. Gilbert will have to swallow his pride this season (or at least part of it), take a minor point decrease (he will still play on the second powerplay unit), and learn to play a defense-oriented brand of hockey until MacTavish tells him to do otherwise.
One of the keys for the Oilers' success this season will depend on this second pairing’s ability to limit the attack on the mediocre Oilers' goaltending, and Gilbert is a huge part of this.
The third pairing is easily my favorite. I love both Ladislav Smid and Denis Grebeshkov. Even though they won’t play more than 15 minutes per game, they will still account for at least some of the success the Oilers have.
Smid looks like he’ll be a full-time stay-at-home defender for this season (and probably his career), and Grebeshkov will be an offensive defensemen with above-average defensive abilities.
Even though Smid didn’t have a good season last year, his role was dramatically reduced from the year before (2006-2007), when a rash of injuries gave him upwards of 22 minutes per game. With his role firmly in place as a third-pairing defenseman who will play against some of the better forwards in the league, he should improve greatly in all aspects of his game.
Grebeshkov was easily one of the better Oilers defensemen in the second half of the season. Thought of to be a one-dimensional offensive defenseman, he surprised us with his great defensive instincts; and his offensive abilities continued to improve as well.
Responsibilities will be increased this season, as he will get more ice time both at even strength and on special teams. Last season he looked like he could be a very well-rounded top-four defenseman, and he will only improve this season.
Aside from Visnovsky, Jason Strudwick is another newcomer. Unfortunately, this signing does little to improve the back end. Strudwick is a washed up veteran who can play a rough, stay at home style of hockey similar to Steve Staios; but with no offensive upside. Strudwick will be, at his very best, a fifth defenseman called upon only in the event of an injury.
The Oilers' defense looks to be somewhat thin on the defense and thick on the offense. Visnovsky and Souray are hardly what you call shut-down defensemen; therefore a large portion of the shutdown duties will lie in the hands of Staios and Gilbert.
Smid, coming off a tough year, and Grebeshkov, coming off a fantastic year, will look to contribute more this season than last as the Oilers make the march toward postseason hockey.
Overall Grade: B-
Still to Come:
Part 3: Forwards
Part 4: Future Watch/Springfield Falcons Report
Part 5: Everything Else